Labour governments are moderate governments. That is an obvious statement which needs no explaining. By their strategy of accepting the capitalist settlement, not pushing too hard against the holders of financial and economic power in society, and relying on slow and evolutionary change in a modestly progressive direction, they hope to make life a little better for most people over time.
It is a modest ambition and comes from the modest aspirations of Labour parties in general. These days Labour parties are not revolutionary movements. Bryce Edwards highlights this in his commentary on this year's Budget, for example.
At the present time, with the configuration of political and media interests being what it is, and the Labour Party organisation and campaigning ability being what it is, the prospects of passing a very different kind of budget are zero. It is however interesting to think about what a really left-wing government could have been doing (and would already have done) in 2007.
Imagine, if you will, a situation where the Labour Party and the Alliance re-united in 1994, rather than not, and that as a result the Labour Party of today was a much more left wing creature than it is. (Practically this was never going to happen for a huge range of reasons, but bear with me). Imagine that this more left wing Labour party, with a wider activist base and a more radical policy and caucus, had taken power in 1999, aided by the Greens as a coalition partner.
What then? Here are a few predictions about what life would be like in New Zealand in 2007:
- Health spending would be sitting around 9-10% of GDP and the issues of waiting lists and costs of care in the public health system would not exist.
- The 1991 benefit cuts would have been reversed, with inflation taken into account, and there would have been a redistribution of the tax system to put more money into the hands of lower income families, and out of the hands of higher income ones.
- The industrial relations system would have been recollectivised, with an awards system restored and a far stronger union movement leading to higher real wages for working Kiwis.
- Tertiary, early childhood, vocational education and training would be free at point of use, and more people would be taking it up. The student loans scheme would have been dismantled and student support would be generous.
- Nation-wide investment in public transport would have been far higher over the past decade, with new lines and new rolling stock on the railways in particular.
- New Zealand would have focused economic policy on local production, not acceded any further into the WTO system, and retained some levels of protection on local industry. The country would not be negotiating free trade agreements with anyone.
- New Zealand's distribution of income would be moving solidly in a more egalitarian direction, with much higher taxation on high income earners and corresponding cuts to the tax burden and increased family support for low income families.
- There would be steps towards a Kiwi Republic which put the Treaty relationship into a modern, bicultural context.
- Public spending would be at around 42-44% of GDP, around 10 percentage points (~$17bn a year) higher than it is today.
- There would be a campaigning, ideas and institutional structure backing all this and allowing this sort of government to be re-elected.
Those are just a few ideas, there are no doubt many more.
What I find interesting about such a list is that in some respects it simply builds on what the current Labour administration has achieved. There is a discernible and tangible progressive, social-democratic element to Labour's current programme.
In some areas - those pertaining to the economic programme of a left government - the direction is opposite to Labour and the contrast stark.
The interesting thing for those on the left of politics like Bryce is to work out ways in which the above list could seem like a viable programme for a left of centre government.
I suspect that it would require an effort on a similar scale to the international organisation of the neoliberal right over the past thirty years: think tanks, academics, organisation, conscious engagement with politics, clever thinking about how to frame debates, etc. It would not be a small project. It isn't a project that is well suited to most of the "left" activists I know in New Zealand, who are more comforable bemoaning the alleged failings of Labour governments than they are in doing anything practical about them.
Such a programme is unthinkable in 2007. It wouldn't work. It is not a lack of political will do move in a more progressive direction that is the issue. It is unthinkable because the public don't want it. They don't want it because nobody has persuaded them of the merits of a more left wing approach.
I wonder if, in the future of politics in this country, anyone will ever try to do so?